The Christmas oyster stew

John and Shirley Mayhew in 1996. — courtesy Shirley Mayhew

Oyster stew has got to be the easiest dish in the world to prepare. Aside from the oysters, you probably have the other ingredients at hand — light cream, butter, paprika, and a bit of dry sherry. That’s all it takes.

I was introduced to oysters for the first time in the late forties, when I married Johnny Mayhew, a former navy fighter pilot who wanted nothing more than to settle on the Vineyard and do whatever he had to do to stay here for the rest of his life. The timing was right — two of his cousins, John and Everett Whiting, and a friend, Willy Huntington, had just decided to attempt growing oysters in Tisbury Great Pond. They called their newly formed company Quansoo Shellfish Farm. John Whiting was a college professor, Everett was a farmer, and Willy was an artist. They needed someone to do the actual work of dredging the oysters, finding a market for them, and generally overseeing the whole operation. Johnny, my newly acquired husband, was only too glad to spend his days on the peaceful pond, after growing up all over the world and then fighting in a war for three and a half years.

That first fall was like an extended honeymoon. We lived in John Whiting’s camp on the pond until November, when we moved into a former chicken coop on Everett Whiting’s farm. In 1948 we moved into a real house, the former West Tisbury Church parsonage, across the road from the Whiting farm. There we started producing children while we learned to produce tasty oysters that the Boston market would buy. At that time there were fewer than 5,000 year-round residents on the Island, and even if they all ate oysters, it wasn’t enough to sustain an oyster business.

In 1951 we formed the Vineyard Shellfish Company; Johnny was president and I became the secretary/treasurer of this tiny corporation. After leasing a small piece of land from Mildred Purdom, on the property which many years later became a vacation retreat for President Obama, Johnny built a shucking shed on the shore of Tisbury Great Pond, and I worked there washing the shucked oysters in a huge stainless steel tub that swirled them around like a giant washing machine. We had two or three employees who, after dredging the bivalves, would shuck them. Meanwhile, we were eating a lot of oysters, and at that time I considered them a meal for poor people. We couldn’t afford steak and roast beef. I never served oysters to company. We struggled along and in 1955, when our third child was born, we began to realize that we would never be able to afford braces for our children’s teeth, let alone college for their education by growing oysters. In 1958 we gave up and Johnny went back to school to earn his teaching certificate. In 1959 he began teaching math in the newly opened Regional High School. I followed him into teaching seven years later, joining the staff at the Edgartown School.

After several years of financial stability, and of eating steak and roast beef occasionally, I realized that I was yearning for an oyster meal. In the late sixties, as our children grew older, we started having friends in on Christmas afternoon. In 1972 I made a batch of oyster stew to feed the growing number of friends who dropped in. By this time we, and several other families, had switched our family dinner from Christmas Day to Christmas Eve, thus freeing all of us to enjoy the end of Christmas Day together.

In 1974 I began to keep track of how many people came and how many quarts of stew I would need to feed them. Bannie Sexton, Martha Sanford, and the Rosenthals were our elders, and Prudy Athearn was the first baby to enjoy our open house, though not the oyster stew. She was five months old, and our son, Jack, had built her a cradle and presented it to her that evening. Twelve years later, after use by two more Athearn babies, Jim and Debby had presented it back to Jack for his own first-born daughter, Caroline. It was Caroline’s arrival, and Lucy’s 1 ½; years later, that prompted me to ban smoking within our house, which didn’t go over very well with a few of our guests. But I was pleased a few years later when I realized that all our former smokers had given up the habit.

Pretty soon we were entertaining a number of small children, babies and toddlers, as well as their elders. They were underfoot, so I rented a video, a relatively new entertainment in those days. That first year it was “Dumbo,” and the children all sat enthralled in the upstairs TV room, which left their parents free to slurp up the stew undisturbed. I continued the renting of videos until most of the children were too old for them or had seen them all.

By the early 1980s we had 51 drop-ins, including children, and we have averaged between 40 and 50 ever since. As we gained in children, we began to lose some of the adults. We miss Martha Sanford, Bannie Sexton, the Rosenthals, the Nevins, the Mazers, and the others, but as the babies continued to arrive, we often had three generations of a family present.

In 1992 three more babies were added — Katie Ann Mayhew, Deborah’s daughter and our third granddaughter; Clarissa, daughter of Laura Murphy and third granddaughter of Polly and Stan Murphy; and Grant McCarthy, son of Joan and Dan McCarthy. The earlier babies are now grown up, some with babies of their own, and so the chain of life goes on, in our living room, on Christmas night.

But nothing lasts forever. In 1995 I flew to California to be with my younger daughter, Sarah, who was scheduled to have surgery on December 6th. I was to bring her home for Christmas and recuperation. But when I got out there, the operation was postponed for two weeks. Neither one of us arrived back on the Vineyard until January 6th, thus missing our family’s celebration and our party, which was canceled. The tradition was not so easily dropped, however. Peter and Susan Huntington opened their home on that Christmas night for those who wanted to gather, although with no oyster stew.

The following year I turned 70 and felt I could no longer cope with a big gathering in my house at the end of an already busy Christmas Day. I sent a note to everyone explaining how sorry I was and how much we had enjoyed hosting the party for some 25 years. Our daughter Deborah wouldn’t give up this tradition, however, and added a note saying the party would go on at her house on Panhandle Road, just around the corner from our Music Street home.

And so it has. Until 2003, Johnny still harvested the oysters and shucked out two bushels of them, and I was still making the oyster stew, usually two to three gallons. After that, we had to buy the oysters. But then, when we felt tired on Christmas night, we could go home to a quiet house and let the party go on in the hands of the younger generations. When there was leftover stew, we took it to those who couldn’t make it to the party. This wonderful tradition, of family and friends, is now in its fourth decade, and shows no signs of fading away.

But things do change. Johnny went to live at Windemere in 2008 and died in January 2012. I turned the making of the stew over to Deb’s partner, Todd, but he died later in 2012 — so I am back to making the stew, which isn’t really difficult. I have moved into an apartment I had built attached to Deborah’s house, so I can cook it on her stove, and retreat to my own quarters when the party gets too much for me.

Oyster Stew

1 pint oysters
2-3 Tbsp. butter
1 ½ cups milk
Dash of paprika
½ cup light cream
Jigger of dry sherry

Put oysters, milk, and light cream into top of double boiler. Add butter and paprika and cook over medium heat until butter is melted and the oysters rise to the surface. Don’t cook too hot or too fast, or stew will curdle. Add dry sherry to taste. Makes 4 cups.